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Darwinism and “Astroturf”

David Klinghoffer

Here’s a helpful concept from investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson. In an excellent TED talk, she calls it “astroturf” — a false impression of grassroots or otherwise widespread support for an idea, cause, or product. The technique is rampant and of course the Internet is peerless in manipulating an impression of consensus to steamroll public opinion and shut down skepticism.

Attkisson identifies some “hallmarks” of astroturf and they all ring bells. First is
“inflammatory language” — “crank, quack, nutty, lies, paranoid, pseudo, and conspiracy” — that attacks people rather than honestly critiquing ideas. “Astroturfers often claim to debunk ‘myths’ that aren’t myths at all. Use of the charged language tests well.”

“Beware when interests attack an issue by controversializing or attacking the people, personalities, and organizations surrounding it rather than addressing the facts.” Yes.

“And most of all, astroturfers tend to reserve all of their public skepticism for those exposing wrongdoing rather than the wrongdoers. In other words, instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority.” Exactly.

“Once you know what to look for,” she says, “you’ll begin to recognize it everywhere.” Yep.

She gives the example of Wikipedia, where agenda-driven editors instantly leap to “correct” any change to a page dealing with a subject they’re devoted to policing. She makes no mention of debates about evolution, but imagine the naïve individual who consults, let’s say, the Wiki page devoted to bashing intelligent design and ID’s advocates.

I would add another hallmark, which is the amount of work that must be done by sarcasm and attitude over sober argument. See as an example mathematician Jason Rosenhouse’s recent review of Doug Axe’s book Undeniable. I had missed this, but it came across my desk this morning.

In a given piece of writing, you could try the following experiment. Subtract the snark, the insults, the name-calling, the false attributions of “conspiracy” thinking, the appeals to authority, and when you’re done, see if you’ve got anything left. In this case, the answer is “not much.” Rosenhouse actually says, “I won’t bother with Axe’s arguments, such as they are, for dismissing natural selection.” He won’t bother! At least he’s up front about it.

Rosenhouse accuses Axe of doing exactly what Rosenhouse himself does. Of presumed evidence for Darwinism, he says, Axe “laughs at it. Dismisses it out of hand.” If Dr. Axe’s two decades of extremely meticulous peer-reviewed lab research on protein evolution is reasonably equated with “laughter” or “out of hand” dismissal, then I guess so. “Would that we were all so impetuous in our investigations,” says a colleague who points this out to me.

The very fact that Axe makes his research accessible to a general audience, no mean feat, is held against him — “reads far more like standard creationist propaganda than it does a work of science.” Ah yes, the “creationist” libel. They can never leave that out.

Speaking of creationism, Attkisson alludes to what I’d call a final hallmark of astroturf, another favorite of Darwinists, which is the appeal to vanity. She says, “People hear something’s a myth, maybe they find it on Snopes, and they instantly declare themselves too smart to fall for it.” Way too smart. This, I’m convinced, is the reason that “creationists” and “creationism” are so habitually, robotically linked with ID by Darwinist astroturfers. The purpose is to evade reasoned discussion by making your audience feel embarrassed at the prospect of being associated with a down-market demographic.

With astroturf, the agenda reigns supreme. What happened to the search for truth? Darwinists are too smart for that.

I’m on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.